It only took a few minutes after recently returning home to Israel from the United States to realize the distinct difference in reality I was re-entering. After dragging my bags upstairs and getting settled into my apartment, I headed out again to pick up some dinner. But the empty street corner that I had left only several minutes before had suddenly become the site of a spontaneous rally opposing the planned disengagement from Gush Katif and the rest of the Gaza Strip, slated to begin in mid-August.
Seemingly from nowhere, 200 or so people, all wearing bright orange T-shirts and rubber bracelets — orange is the chosen color of the anti-withdrawal forces — had filled the area. They lined both sides of Kanfai Nesharim Street, a main Jerusalem artery that serves as a route toward Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway 1.
The first thought that came to mind was, Jonathan, you’re not in Pittsburgh anymore.
My first instinct was that of a journalist: I ran back to my apartment to grab my camera and my notepad. When I returned, many of the people who were lining the sidewalk were now standing in the street, blocking traffic. Most of them were teenage boys. A few older boys started throwing large metal trash bins into the street, and the screech of constant car horns blasted — some drivers honking in support, others just wanting to continue on toward their destinations.
Not long after, I moved past the scene. Spontaneous rallies and blocking traffic have become a common occurrence in Jerusalem these days. But it was a scene that I could not put out of my mind. As I continued on, I remembered a previous rally that had broken out at the very same intersection a month earlier and how unsettling that incident was.
The earlier rally had been a similar occurrence, at the same time of day. I was sitting in my apartment, and suddenly I heard an endless peal of car horns and the din of loud voices chanting passionately in unison. When I headed out to the street to see what was happening, there were hundreds of people, all chanting, “Jews don’t expel Jews.”
They were throwing metal trash bins into the street and blocking traffic — and every one of them was wearing orange. After speaking to several onlookers, I found out that it was a day of planned rallies around the country that were to commence at 5 p.m. during rush hour.
I watched in shock as mostly teenage boys and girls stood in front of four lanes of menacing car hoods on all three sides of the intersection. There was even a young man blocking the path of a bus that almost seemed intent on running him over. I asked Levy, a 13-year-old stationed on the sidewalk, why he was out there. My initial thought was that this kid had no idea what the rally was really about; this was what the people in his neighborhood were doing that day, and he would shrug his shoulders when confronted with the question. But he turned around and explained to me very clearly that he didn’t agree with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to expel Jews from Gaza and that he thought that we should be expelling the people who were trying to kill Jews, not the Jews themselves. He spoke with feeling, and I could see the depth of his emotion in his eyes; this was not a fleeting thought for him, but a cause that truly touched his heart.
Suddenly I had so much respect for this mature young man, who not only had such strong convictions, but had the strength to act on them. I wondered if I had that same strength.
When the police finally arrived, they started by gently coercing the protesters to the side of the road. But as one group was pushed onto the curb, another would head right back into the street. A group of mothers, most with strollers or holding small children by the hand, looked on worriedly.
Suddenly a policeman grabbed a young girl by her purse, gripped her strongly, leaned in very close to her face and started talking to her in a serious, angry tone. Though all the other police were reacting to the scene in a calm and orderly manner, this one young cop seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He jumped up into the face of one of the older men standing on the street corner, started shouting at him, and then gave him the same stare-down he had given the young girl.
Suddenly a group gathered around them and started yelling at the cop to leave the guy alone.
“You’re both Jews,” one older woman called out. “Why are you treating him like that?” she pleaded.
“I’m not Jewish,” called back the cop. “I’m a Druse,” he said, referring to the Muslim religious offshoot, the only Arab group in Israel that serves in the army
“You’re not a Druse! You’re Jewish; you’re Jewish,” voices from the crowd called out. The policeman’s Ashkenazi Hebrew accent and European skin tone kept the crowd shouting until he finally stepped away from the man.
A friend happened to be walking by as the incident started to develop, and we watched together as events unfolded. Though the whole occurrence was terribly disturbing, neither one of us could get over the site of one young man — maybe 10 years old — who kept being pushed to the curb by the cop but would turn around and head back into the street screaming with so much anger in his young face.
“This is the saddest thing that I’ve ever seen,” my friend said to me.
“From which perspective?” I asked, unsure which side of the fence he sat on in the expulsion issue.
“From every perspective.”
My friend was right. No matter where one sits on the withdrawal issue, the very fact that Jewish police and army personnel will most probably be forcibly removing Jews from their homes and struggling with protesters will indeed tear at the seam of the nation. This rally illustrated that it’s a tear that we’re already starting to see.
Whether Sharon’s withdrawal plan is one that will ultimately strengthen the security situation is unclear at this point. But what is very clear are the repercussions. Deep emotional wounds and resentment from both sides seem unavoidable. And the hardest thing for me — as an immigrant — is to watch the divide between people in the country that I love growing larger and larger as the planned disengagement nears.
Jonathan Udren is a freelance journalist and editor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He made aliyah in 2003 and lives in Jerusalem.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.